We are just taking a look into the worlds weirdest languages and included in that is ENGLISH.
The weirdest languages
We’re in the business of natural language processing with lots of different languages. In the last six months, we’ve worked on (big breath): English, Portuguese (Brazilian and from Portugal), Spanish, Italian, French, Russian, German, Turkish, Arabic, Japanese, Greek, Mandarin Chinese, Persian, Polish, Dutch, Swedish, Serbian, Romanian, Korean, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Hindi, Croatian, Czech, Ukrainian, Finnish, Hebrew, Urdu, Catalan, Slovak, Indonesian, Malay, Vietnamese, Bengali, Thai, and a bit on Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Kurdish, Yoruba, Amharic, Zulu, Hausa, Kazakh, Sindhi, Punjabi, Tagalog, Cebuano, Danish, and Navajo.
Natural language processing (NLP) is about finding patterns in language—for example, taking heaps of unstructured text and automatically pulling out its structure. The open secret about NLP is that it’s very English-centric. English is the language that linguists have worked on the most and it’s also the language that has the most available resources for computer science projects So one of the best ways to test an NLP system is to try languages other than English. The better that a system can deal with diverse data, the more confident that you can be in its ability to handle unseen data.( finding patterns in language) I call it the rhythm in language or harmonics.
To this end, we might choose to define “weirdness” in terms of English. But that’s a pretty irritating definition. Let’s try to do something different.
A global method for linguistic outliers
The World Atlas of Language Structures evaluates 2,676 different languages in terms of of different language features. These features include word order, types of sounds, ways of doing negation, and a lot of other things—192 different language features in total.
So rather than take an English-centric view of the world, WALS allows us take a worldwide view. That is, we evaluate each language in terms of how unusual it is for each feature. For example, English word order is subject-verb-object—there are 1,377 languages that are coded for word order in WALS and 35.5% of them have SVO word order. Meanwhile only 8.7% of languages start with a verb—like Welsh, Hawaiian and Majang—so cross-linguistically, starting with a verb is unusual. For what it’s worth, 41.0% of the world’s languages are actually SOV order. (Aside: I’ve done some work with Hawaiian and Majang and that’s how I learned that verbs are a big commitment for me. I’m just not ready for verbs when I open my mouth.)
The 5 least weird languages in the world
Now if I asked you to consider these languages, how weird would you say they were? Lithuanian, Indonesian, Turkish, Basque, and Cantonese. Surprise! They are really low on the Weirdness Index. They don’t seem typical to linguists and language learners but for these 21 features they stick with the crowd. Notice that we get isolates (like Basque) distributed throughout levels of Weirdness. Basque is “typical” but Kutenai, another isolate, is one of the weirdest of all languages. Even more surprising is that Mandarin Chinese is in the top 25 weirdest and Cantonese is in the bottom 10. This has to do with the fact that they have different sounds: Mandarin, unlike Cantonese has uvular continuants and has some limits on “velar nasals” (like English, Mandarin can have a sound like at the end of song but it can’t have that sound at the beginning of words—worldwide it’s rare to have that particular restriction).
At the very very bottom of the Weirdness Index there are two languages you’ve heard of and three you may not have: Hungarian, normally renowned as a linguistic oddball comes out as totally typical on these dimensions. (I got to live in Budapest last summer and I swear that Hungarian does have weirdnesses, it just hides them other places.) Chamorro (a language of Guam spoken by 95,000 people), Ainu (just a handful of speakers left in Japan, it is nearly extinct), and Purépecha (55,000 speakers, mostly in Mexico) are all very normal. But the very most super-typical, non-deviant language of them all, with a Weirdness Index of only 0.087 is Hindi, which has only a single weird feature.
Part of this is to say that some of the languages you take for granted as being normal (like English, Spanish, or German) consistently do things differently than most of the other languages in the world. It reminds me of one of the basic questions in psychology: to what extent can we generalize from research studies based on university students who are, as Joseph Henrich and his colleagues argue, Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic. In other words: sometimes the input is WEIRD and you need to ask yourself how that changes things.